By Elise Ann Allen, Senior Correspondent
ROME (Crux) — As tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to escalate and the threat of a full-scale war between the two becomes more palpable, Ukraine’s charitable Caritas organization has said it is preparing for a possible humanitarian crisis should there be an invasion.
Speaking to The Tablet, Vladyslav Shelokov, Communication and Resource Mobilization Director for Caritas Ukraine, said the deterioration of the situation into war “would exponentially deepen the already existing humanitarian situation.
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“It would be a big tragedy not just for people who fled their houses escaping from blasts and shells, but also a huge tragedy for all our country,” he said, noting that “potentially millions of people” would find themselves in need.
Should a full war erupt, Caritas would need to step up efforts it has already been making in conflict areas since the 2014 unrest, organizing shelter for the displaced and providing water, food, hygiene kits, and medical care and support.
Caritas, Shelokov said, has been providing these services for the past eight years, “and we are also preparing to respond in the same manner this time, in case of escalation, but we hope and pray that our experience in rapid response in deterioration of war will not be applied into action.”
In the past two months Russia has amassed thousands of troops at its border with Ukraine, with the estimated number of Russian soldiers surrounding the territory close to 200,000.
Russia initially denied that it was preparing for an invasion and said it was responding to aggression by NATO allies, however, Moscow has said it is ready to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if its demands are not met that NATO withdraw its troops from eastern Europe and pledge never to admit Ukraine or any other former Soviet nation as members.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been building steadily since 2014, when Ukrainian citizens ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych. Shortly after, Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists who overtook large swaths of the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Since then, shelling and sniper attacks have become a daily occurrence in eastern Ukraine, with the United Nations estimating that so far around 1.5 million people have been displaced and an estimated 14,000 have died, many of whom were civilians.
Russia has long resisted Ukraine’s advances toward European institutions and its efforts to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
With Russia continuing to send troops to its borders with Ukraine in this latest escalation of tensions, the United States and European countries such as Germany and France have stepped in to negotiate, as observers increasingly warn that a Russian military offensive in Ukraine would put the security of the whole of Europe at risk.
U.S. President Joe Biden has threatened sweeping economic sanctions of Russia if their forces invade Ukraine, however, Russia has not been dissuaded.
In an address to the Russian people Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked tensions further with an announcement recognizing the independence of the two Russian-controlled separatist regions in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, calling them the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
In response, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky said in his own speech to the nation that “the international borders of Ukraine will remain the same,” despite Putin’s recognition of the Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
“We will not give anything to anyone,” he said, and reiterated his desire for a diplomatic solution to the situation, saying, “we are dedicated to a peaceful and diplomatic path, we are on our land. We are not afraid of anything or anyone, we do not owe anything to anyone, we will not give anything to anyone.”
In his comments to The Tablet, Shelokov said Ukrainian citizens have been living with the threat of bombs, shelling, and potential war for almost a decade.
“People who live near the frontline are used to shelling and shootings, and sometimes, it is really hard to believe that people are used to living on the battlefield,” he said, noting that there has also been an economic fallout to the latest swell in tensions.
Over the past two months the economic situation in Ukraine has deteriorated, he said, noting that the hryvnia, Ukraine’s national currency, has lost around 10% of its value compared to the euro.
“At the same time, oil and gas prices are high now and the fuel cost is also raised,” as have prices on types of goods and services, “especially food and utility payments has also grown. And now the escalation is further deepening the crisis,” Shelokov said.
Caritas, he said, has been among the most active in what Ukraine refers to as the “occupied territory” in the east, providing “systematic support” to those living in the buffer zone.
Projects in the area have included the distribution of food baskets, hygiene kits, heating materials, and pharmacy vouchers, as basic medicines and food supplies are increasingly hard to come by.
However, Shelokov said Caritas’s daily humanitarian field work in the conflict area, which has steadily increased, was temporarily suspended as of Feb. 18 “due to the unpredictable security situation.”
So far, around 61,000 people have fled the conflict area in the latest escalation of tensions, increasing the number of those who are internally displaced. The European Council recently adopted a 1.2 billion Euro aid plan to assist Ukraine amid the current crisis.
Shelokov said it is unknown whether Russia will in fact invade Ukraine, but “we pray for peace, because Ukrainians are peaceful people.”
“At the same time, Caritas Ukraine is continuously increasing its capacity to provide adequate response to help people in need in case of open military aggression from Russia,” he said.
As the crisis unfolds, there have been increased calls for Vatican mediation and a papal visit to Ukraine, which Church leaders in the country believe could help calm tensions and put off the threat of war.
Ukraine’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Andriy Yurash, said in a recent interview with Reuters that the Vatican would be an ideal place for peace negotiations to end the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine, and voiced openness to direct Vatican mediation.
Yurash, who is expected to arrive in Italy this month, reiterated his government’s invitation for Pope Francis to visit, saying, “All world leaders are visiting Ukraine,” and a papal visit “will have a very great impact for the development of the situation.”
Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Sviatoslav Shevchuk, in a media roundtable earlier this month, repeated his own plea for a papal visit, telling journalists that “If the pope comes to Ukraine, the war would end.”
In terms of the Vatican’s role as a mediator, Shelokov said “Every effort to de-escalate the situation is valuable,” and that regardless of what the outward results are of Pope Francis’s many prayers for Ukraine, his words have been “an important sign of solidarity and support for Ukrainian people.”
“Together with the Holy Father we are united in our prayers and wish of de-escalation and the end of the war,” he said, saying a visit from the pope would be a historic moment for the entire country.
Shelokov recalled Pope Saint John Paul II’s visit to Kyiv and Lviv in 2001, which drew hundreds of thousands of people together.
“I remember how people were standing along streets and avenues where pope’s motorcade was going. His presence carried an amazing atmosphere of hope for a better future among the people,” Shelokov said, adding, “today we need the sign of solidarity and support, the assurance that we are not alone.”
A papal visit, he said, “can bring to all of us endorsement and hope that this threatening situation would be avoided with the help of God.”